Ava DuVernay tells the tale of the Central Park Five in a stirring but unsubtle miniseries.
Everyone knows the story of the Central Park Five, but how many of us can say we really know the players? Who were these boys? Where did they come from? And what did being swallowed whole by an unjust and racist legal system do to them? Ava DuVernay’s new four-part drama on Netflix, When They See Us, strives to answer that. However, whether it succeeds in its mission and whether it’s an enjoyable or well-crafted piece of art are two different questions.
As familiar with the case as we all may be, here’s a quick refresher: In 1989, five boys, all between the ages of 14 and 16, all nonwhite, were arrested for the rape, assault, and attempted murder of a white Central Park jogger. All five maintained their innocence, citing police abuse and intimidation tactics as the reason for their false confessions. All five were convicted, spending 6–13 years in prison. In 2002, a convicted rapist already serving a life sentence confessed to the crime providing DNA evidence that confirmed it, leading to the conviction of the Five to finally be vacated.
But while the case is finally being recognized for the failure of the legal system that it was, far less is said about who the Central Park Five were. In interviews DuVernay has stated that this lack of insight was the whole reason the series eschews the moniker given to the boys by the media. The “Central Park Five” was the name given to Antron McCray (Caleel Harris/Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Harris/Chris Chalk), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk/Justin Cunningham), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriquez/Freddy Miyares), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) by the media—the same media that also called them “savages,” “animals,” and “human mutations” before their trial had even begun.
It is not a show about a trial or about a crime, but about the psychological damage done by the very systems ostensibly designed to protect us.
But that makes some of the structure of When They See Us a little baffling. For a series where its very title is a rebuking of the media coverage of the case, very little time is spent either showing or discussing that coverage. Instead, the focus falls on the various systems that failed these boys. It’s a worthwhile effort, but aside from a few Trump clips (he infamously spent $80,000 on ads calling for the boys’ execution), we see shockingly little of the media’s appalling coverage which feels like a glaring oversight given the care taken with exploring everything else.
That said, it’s clear that the main goal of When They See Us is to humanize the boys who would lose their childhood to this case. It is not a show about a trial or about a crime, but about the psychological damage done by the very systems ostensibly designed to protect us. So we see the brutality of the interrogation, the suspense of the courtroom, the cruelty of prison, and most important of all, we see what happens when they’re released and trying to reenter a society that shuns them.
At times, DuVernay’s tactics can feel Spielberg-ian. With soft focus and lens flares in almost every scene, the strings being used to manipulate our emotions here are visible. While this will be off-putting to some, it serves her purpose. DuVernay doesn’t want it to be remotely possible for the audience to side against the boys. Her filmmaking demands our empathy. Whether you’ll enjoy the process is strictly a matter of taste.
Ultimately, When They See Us is a humanizing portrayal of a group of men that never really got the chance to be truly seen. But it lacks some of the sophistication of DuVernay’s previous efforts, specifically Selma. The overt sentimentality might achieve the series’ goals, but it doesn’t make for a terribly enjoyable or engaging watch. Ultimately, it’s still worth a try, but those hoping for more of the facts and the nitty gritty should turn to the Ken Burns documentary instead.
When They See Us is currently available on Netflix.